What will Clara and Stephen say to one another when they are forced to meet again?
Clara heard a solid thunk as she pushed open the door to the sitting room, intent on capturing her wayward pupil. “Oh, heavens! I didn’t mean to hurt you, Cece!” However, upon hearing a masculine swear, she soon realized that Miss Ward’s visitor was her unintended victim.
A man stumbled away from the door and quickly pulled a handkerchief up to his nose to staunch the flow of blood. “I am so sorry, sir!” She exclaimed. “Here, allow me to help you.” She pulled him by his free arm to the settee. Cecilia stood frozen. “Miss Ward, ask a maid to send a poultice up from the kitchen. Some court-plaster may be needed as well and ice if Cook has any.”
The girl still did not move. “Now!”
Finally, Cecilia fled the room, and Clara turned her attention toward the gentleman again. “If you will pinch your nose and lean forward, the flow should stop in a few minutes.”
“Backward, you mean,” the man replied in a gruff voice and rested his head on the back of his seat.
“I am sorry to correct you, sir, but forward is better. Allowing the blood to drain down the throat can cause you to cast your accounts.”
He remained still for a moment before complying.
“I truly am sorry.”
“Sorrier it was me and not Miss Ward? Save your apologies for someone else, Miss Lumley.”
Clara turned red. She knew she was hard on the students, but she did care for them. “I know I am not Miss Ward’s favorite teacher, as she so evidently has told you, but I would never wish to hurt her. I daresay any lady would be embarrassed by harming a gentleman and a stranger.”
An angry laugh rumbled from the man beside her while a maid bustled in with a tray of supplies. Clara supposed Cecilia was lurking in the door frame or gathering Mrs. Alderly. “Thank you, Molly. The ice first, please.” She applied it to the stranger’s nose and did not miss him wincing at the pressure.
“Again, I apologize.”
“I am surprised a teacher is serving as a nurse. Is the housekeeper not capable?”
“Mrs. Alderly has tended to all the household things for the last year or two, but she leaves the medical things to me.”
“You should have married an apothecary then.”
Clara blushed and was thankful he could not see. Vexing man to torment her while she attempted to help him! “Shall I tie up the next single one I find and abscond to Scotland? I might have bloodied your nose, but do not think that gives you leave to be so impertinent. What care I for your opinion and ridicule?”
She changed out his bloodied handkerchief for hers, and he did not bother to reply as their hands grazed. She took a moment to study him. Long ago, she cared a great deal for the opinion of a well-dressed gentleman of muscular build and with dark hair. Of course, eyes were her true weakness then, and she had never seen another pair that could capture her the way Stephen Clifford had. She had long since stopped looking for even a paltry stand-in. Why should she rely on a gentleman for her security when she could make her own?
At last, it was time to assess the patient for other injuries to his face. “If you will remove the handkerchief, I will see if the other items are needed.”
The gentleman seemed hesitant at first but then sat upright and removed the handkerchief, his eyes squeezed shut. Already, bruises were forming under his eyes.
“Yes, there is a cut under your eye as well. If you could slide lower or perhaps lay on the settee, I could apply the plaster easier.”
“Is there not a footman who can do this?” He asked in a gruff tone.
“We have no footmen, sir.”
He repositioned himself and closed his eyes as Clara set to work. Something about the man unnerved her, and she chose to chatter. “You are very tan, sir. Have you been on holiday?”
“I have just returned from India.”
“India! Tell me about it.” She hated the fact that she was so curious about a place Stephen spent much of his life, but it was common to be curious about such exotic lands, was it not? “Molly, could you fetch some wine for our guest?”
After the maid left, the gentleman finally spoke. “What do you wish to know? The landscape, the language, the people?”
“No, all that I have read in countless books. Tell me what it is like having been there.”
The gentleman furrowed his brows, a deep line marring his tan forehead and making him seem much older than she had first thought him to be. “India is like a woman’s love,” he said in shocking coldness. “It is beautiful on the outside but once sufficiently acquainted, she turns dark and cruel.”
Clara gasped and withdrew her hand. “Sir, I will remind you again to not be so impertinent.”
“Because we are strangers?”
“Yes, we have not been introduced, among many other reasons. I am finished now.” She allowed her hand to fall back and waited for the man to return to an upright position.
He opened his eyes, and they locked on hers. Clara’s blood turned to ice as she stared into the familiar depths of Stephen Clifford’s dark blue gaze.
“Ste—ste—” she stuttered before clearing her throat. “Mr. Clifford,” she managed to say.
She wanted to look away, but she could not. His eyes had always held her captive. Recalling his words, she could not understand his tone of anger toward her. Instead, she was moved to compassion when she had been angry at his abandonment for years. She hated the woman and country that turned his expression now to anguish. She hated even more that he must have loved that woman more than he had ever loved her. She hated most of all that it still hurt.
“Miss Lumley,” he said with a slight nod of his head.
“You are returned from India.”
“As you see.”
“And you were meeting with Cecilia Ward?”
“She is my brother’s ward,” he supplied.
She attempted to rack her brain of what she knew of Cecilia’s arrangement. Her step-father did not pay for everything, as he was the second or third one she had. A guardian was chosen for her after her mother’s divorce. Something about an affair…
She had never met Stephen’s family and was distracted by still attempting to piece together the strange being before her. He was so significantly altered from the Stephen Clifford she had known. If his brother was the one to have an affair with the opera singer, then why did he sound so bitter?
“Miss Ward is a good girl, but perhaps you can convince her to take her studies more seriously.” It was not meant as a harsh critique. On the contrary, it was a problem most of the girls at the school had.
Hearing a step in the hall, Clara stood. “Here comes Molly with the wine. I will go and fetch Cecilia to resume your meeting.” She curtsied, thankful to have a reason to leave, and turned to leave just as Mrs. Alderly stepped inside with Cecilia trailing behind. The headmistress hastened to Stephen’s side.
“All is well, Mrs. Alderly,” he said with more composure than Clara had thought possible. “Thank you for the assistance, Miss Lumley. It was a pleasure to see you again.” This was clearly added for the sake of politeness, for his expression and tone remained hostile. Stephen turned toward Cecilia. “I am sorry to cut our meeting short, Miss Ward, but I am needed at my estate.”
“Oh,” the girl said, seemingly strangely shy.
“I leave for London soon and will be quite busy for several months. Therefore, I do not know when we shall next meet.”
Clara fumed and tapped her foot. Treating a girl as an afterthought for his ever-important travels. There was the Stephen Clifford she knew!
“The ledgers, madam?” His question set Mrs. Alderly to frowning, but she handed over several account books. “Good day, ladies.”
He bowed and quit the room, leaving Clara more unsettled than ever. Why would he need the accounts? She decided she did not wish to know.
“Come along, Miss Ward. We have already wasted half of the lesson, and you will have to work late tonight to make up for the reading your classmates have done in our absence.” Clara quickly walked through the room, refusing to meet Mrs. Alderly’s eyes, and toward her classroom, noting the sound of Cecilia’s feet behind her.
The next afternoon, Clara was summoned to Mrs. Alderly’s office.
“Be seated, Miss Lumley,” the older lady said.
“Ma’am, if this is about yesterday, I assure you I apologized profusely,” Clara interrupted. “He did not seem angered.” About being struck in the nose by the door, that is.
“You seemed quite acquainted with him,” Mrs. Alderly said as she folded her hands in front of her.
“That would be an exaggeration. As you must know, he has only just returned from India. I have been teaching here for nigh on ten years.”
“Yes, but you existed before you were a twenty-year-old governess in a precarious position.”
Mrs. Alderly poured tea, and Clara used the time to collect herself. “Before becoming a governess, I was the step-daughter of an impoverished vicar and in an even more precarious position, as you well know.”
“Have you never wondered why I hired you?”
The woman slowly stirred the sugar in her tea, and Clara began to feel like a mouse in a cat’s clutches. “Did not Mr. Jones give a good recommendation?”
“No, he gave a terrible one — as wealthy men who dislike losing attractive governesses often do.”
Clara turned a dark shade of red at the reference to her fleeing her former employer’s advances. She stared at her tea.
“I hired you on the recommendation of Lady Clifford.”
Clara looked up but blinked in confusion. “Lady Clifford?”
“The dowager,” Mrs. Alderly clarified, but it made no difference to Clara; she had never known Stephen’s family.
“I do not understand. Lady Clifford is nothing to me.”
“The wife of her eldest son opened the school.”
“Oh,” Clara said. After ten years, how had she not taken care to know who the school’s benefactor was? She had never even met the lady.
“Your surprise amazes me. Dowager Clifford reviewed all the applicants and suggested you. I had not thought of a personal connection until your interaction with the younger son yesterday.”
Taking a sip of tea before replying, Clara answered evasively. “We met over a dozen years ago while on holiday near Manchester. We had many common acquaintances and saw each other frequently over the course of a few weeks. Surely, there is no reason to think that his mother recognized my name at all.”
Mrs. Aldlery passed a tray of fruit. “You may keep your secrets, Miss Lumley, but I have been a teacher and ran a school for many years now. I understand most of us who enter this profession have stories of regret. I have no doubts most join our ranks as a last resort. You were quite young, however. You might have married a respectable man.”
“You must remember the position my sisters and I were in. It is not as though finding a suitable gentleman and bringing him up to scratch can happen on a moment’s whim.”
“However, you never seem to wish to leave the school for a home of your own,” the older lady countered.
Setting down her cup, Clara met the headmistress’ eyes. “I do not understand the reason for this meeting, as you seem to desire to find some old hurt or misery and dredge it up, and yet you began with speaking of the Cliffords.
Mrs. Alderly held Clara’s gaze for a moment and finally dropped her cunning pretense. “Very well. We are losing money, Miss Lumley. The school will close if no one can work on the graces of Lord Clifford. You seemed to know the family — as you remain reserved about how, I will not pry further — but the school’s existence and your employment depend on upon Lord Clifford not raising the rent or determining that our house might be leased or sold to another. Our lease ends in a month, and it must be renewed.”
“And you think I can convince Lord Clifford of this?”
“Surely you are the most capable of us. A gentleman must be charmed, and gray spinsters are well past the charming age.”
“Do you doubt his compassion so much?”
“You have been confined to this school for too long if you have forgotten what power a pretty smile can wield. As his lordship has a tight schedule, you will be conveyed to Clifford Hall tomorrow.”
Clara gulped. “What shall happen if I fail?”
“That really is not an option, my dear.”
As Clara returned to her lessons, she entirely agreed. She wished she knew more about Stephen’s brother, the current lord, but she had tried her best to erase all memories of Stephen. After his father had died, she gave up wishing Stephen would return and had little time or use to follow the gossip of peers she would never circulate with. Her father had been a gentleman, but she increasingly and incrementally slipped lower in consequence through fortunes of life. What use did a school teacher have in knowing the on dit of peers? She supposed Cecilia might know something. However, all Clara desired was to know what to expect. Was the earl genial or foreboding?
“Miss Ward, will you please stay?” Clara asked as her class of middle-aged girls ended. Cecilia shifted nervously in her seat. Then, when assured of privacy, Clara began. “What do you know of Lord Clifford?”
“Yes. I thought you might be able to paint a picture of his character for me.”
“I am sorry, but I do not really know him at all.”
Clara frowned. She was under the impression that Cecilia had met her guardian several times a year. “What was your impression of him? Does he seem kind or intimidating?”
“I was petrified to meet him…at first.” She wiped one hand on her skirt, a tell-tale sign that she was uncomfortable. “He seemed unfriendly and as though he did not want to meet me. Then I laughed at something he said, and I thought for sure he would be offended, but he made a joke of it.” Cecilia released her gown and cocked her head. “He seems a very busy gentleman.”
Clara waited, but it appeared that was all the information she would receive. “Thank you. You are excused.”
As Clara brushed her hair out that evening, she resolved to be forthright and direct with his lordship, even as Mrs. Alderly desired her to be sweet and crafty. A busy gentleman would appreciate that, she hoped.
Clara’s heart pounded hard as the school’s carriage brought her before Clifford Hall the next day. Upon entry, the butler had her wait in a small parlor. This did not bode well. It seemed his lordship would not even see her. A few moments later, the servant returned. She stood at his entrance.
“Miss Lumley,” he said while looking at her card, “his lordship is seeing to business right now. He sends his regrets on not being able to meet with you. Rather than inconvenience you with a wait, he suggests you return to the school. Mrs. Alderly may write to him about her concerns as he will be leaving for London tomorrow.”
“Do you know how long he intends to stay?”
“He will be busy with Parliament and will be away for the rest of the season.”
Clara’s shoulders slumped. This was impossible to bear. She must do her best to see his lordship this very day. Taking a deep breath and swelling her courage, she sat. Perhaps she had been mistaken about being so direct. It appeared her best options were to be sweet enough to cajole the butler or beat his lordship at his own stubbornness. “I thank his lordship for his concern. I am quite comfortable waiting for him until he has finished. Or, might I meet with Lady Clifford?” She smiled at the butler and took a lesson from her pupils in hopes that she might give a pleading look. It seemed to work; he left to confer with his master again and offered to send refreshments.
Before the tea arrived, she heard quick steps in the hall. She stood, preparing herself to meet with his lordship. But, instead, the door flung open, and Stephen entered.
“What are you doing here, Miss Lumley?” His dark blue eyes flashed in anger. He looked a fright with his nose and eyes still bruised from yesterday.
“I — I was asked to meet with his lordship about finances for the school. Might — might you entreat him on my behalf?” She would not be cowed by this foul vision of her former suitor. If he did not like her here, he could just return to India!
“What?” He took a step closer to her.
Clara lifted her chin. “Mrs. Alderly sent me to meet with your brother.”
He took several more steps. “My brother?”
“Yes. Your brother, the earl and landlord of Mrs. Alderly’s School for Girls.”
A round of cold laughter burst from his lips, like yesterday when she had said they were strangers, and he must have recognized her long before. Clara stamped her foot. “Do not laugh at me Ste…Mr. Clifford. Perhaps you take great joy in the fact that I am now a lowly school teacher, but I come here on behalf of the employment of dozens.”
“You do,” he said slowly.
“Yes, I do. Now, many years have passed. We must put whatever personal dispute we have behind us. I would like to see your brother, or perhaps your mother.”
Stephen took two more steps to stand directly before her. Finally, he towered over her, and she arched her neck to meet his eyes. “My brother died six weeks ago. I am, now, Lord Clifford, at your service.”
If words could chill, Clara would have turned to ice.